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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Big Question...even Bigger Answer!

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denari and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, ESV)

Who is my neighbor? It is a question full of import and weight. And if most of us are honest with ourselves , we probably ask it with much the same mindset as the Pharisee in Luke 10. After all, if there is someone who can be excluded from the list, then our disrespect, our low opinions, or even our relative apathy toward others has a loophole. Love is big call – it is an act of the will, a commitment, not simply to tolerate someone, but to seek the best for them; to give our best to them; and to relate to them with forgiveness, compassion, and benevolence. Indeed, “who is my neighbor” is one of the biggest questions we will ever ask.

It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that the answer should be just as big. And the answer comes in the form of a story. The story Jesus tells in response to the Pharisee's question is probably the story Christianity has done the most damage to in terms of where we have taken it versus what Christ intended by it. Commonly known as the story of the Good Samaritan, the early Church Fathers typically allegorized the parable of the Good Samaritan – ingeniously piecing the elements together to make it the story of man’s fall and redemption, but in doing so, ripping it out of its context and causing it to offer no real answer to the question. Modern interpreters have too often made the story into an almost vacuous reflection on the importance of helping people – suggesting that the point of the story is that we should be like the Samaritan in the story and help those who are different then us. While this approach does generally offer a response to the question and is instructive in the example given, I believe it fails to hit us as directly and completely as Jesus intended and, in fact, works more to confirm our prideful heart than to correct it.

As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart point out, the most important aspect of interpreting a parable of Jesus is asking who is the audience He is telling the story to* – what are their prejudices, what is their theological baggage, and what is the response Jesus is trying to elicit from them because of their perceptions? In other words, their response to the story is as important to understanding its meaning as the content itself. In this particular case, as the Pharisee is hearing the story, he would have assumed that the neighbor was the wounded man. Hearing of the priest and Levite’s failure to love their neighbor, he would have thought to himself, “I would expect as much from them,” since although they were fellow Jews, they would have been from rival parties within Judaism. Certainly, he thought, as the climax of the story approached, Jesus would use a Pharisee (since Jesus’ himself would have been categorized as someone of the pharisaic tradition) to help the man out and he could walk away having been given a good example to live by and having a renewed commitment to try harder to help those around him. But Jesus is not interested in confirming the Pharisees prejudices and making him feel good about his commitment – Jesus is trying to break through a prideful and calloused heart. So, the hero is a Samaritan! In the eyes of the Pharisee, a sinner in every possible description of the word – he didn’t worship correctly, he questioned the truthfulness of the Torah, and he lived in state of thorough uncleanness! God couldn’t love him and so therefore I certainly don’t have to! And therein is the meaning of the parable – those feelings of anger, hatred, disbelief that such a person would be used as a positive example experienced at that moment laid bare the fact that this Pharisee did not love his neighbor, because in the eyes of the Pharisee, his neighbor wasn’t worthy of love. And so Jesus asked him, “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor?” Forcing the Pharisee to consider the possibility that someone so unclean could be his neighbor too. The Pharisees response is telling…he can’t even name him! All he can say is, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus’ point had been made and so all that was left was the challenge – you go love that Samaritan!

When we read this story some of the power of it has been lost because most of us relate more closely to the Samaritan than we do to the Jew. We hear the story much as the Pharisee first thought he was going to hear it – someone like me (a Gentile) is going to be the hero, so we can walk away having been given a good example to live by and with a renewed commitment to try harder to help those around us. But, rephrase the hero into someone we consider unclean and unworthy and we will hear it as it was intended. As verse 33 begins, input “But an activist homosexual, as he journeyed to where he was…” or “a radical Muslim” or “a leftist democrat,” or for my left leaning friends “a Tea Party activist” and you begin to feel the weight of the call to love our neighbors. If they bleed, they are not our enemy – they are our neighbor!

I’ll admit, I struggle with this mandate. It’s hard to see the value in others who voice opposition to my core beliefs and priorities, sometimes in expressing that opposition in a desire to kill me or those who believe as I do. But that is what I have been called to. That is what it means to take up my cross and to die to myself! That is what it means to be a disciple of the One who prayed on the cross for those who were crucifying Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

One final note, because I feel it is necessary and because I know someone may assume certain things because of their omission. I am not saying we cannot challenge people with their false beliefs or call them to repentance for their sin. Disagreeing with someone is not the same as not loving them. To know someone is on the path of destruction and to say nothing about it is not love. But my goal and challenge is to model my approach after my Saviors when He met a Samaritan who was by every definition of the word “unclean.” He pointed her to the truth, He identified her sin, He corrected her misconceptions, He challenged her to holiness, and He offered her hope – simply by listening; recognizing her as a person, not a sin; and by revealing that He is the answer to every need she had. May I learn to do the same!

*Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Most of the interpretative directions of the comments that follow grow out of their observations and exegetical methodology…in fact, they themselves use this parable for their methodological example.

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